Interior Appropriation Bill Passed Today Endangers Wildlife and Parks

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(06/20/1996) - Washington, D.C: Although the FY 1997 Interior appropriations package passed by 242 to 174 in the House today continues the congressional assault on protection of public lands and wildlife, conservationists say votes on individual provisions demonstrate they are gaining ground.

The bill, H.R. 3662, is not as riddled with riders gutting conservation laws as last year's bill, and conservationists won a stunning victory on one key endangered species vote. Although they lost two votes to lessen the damages from logging on public lands, their margins of loss narrowed greatly compared to 1995. Nonetheless, in addition to the remaining anti- environmental provisions, the bill cuts natural resource funding levels so drastically that it is overwhelmingly opposed by conservationists.

"The leadership of the 104th Congress is finally beginning to understand that the American people will not tolerate back-door attempts to gut environmental laws, so they've adopted a strategy of walking through the front door in different garb. This time rather than attacking natural resource laws, they're aiming their sights at the funding that protects wildlife, habitat, and recreational resources that belong to all Americans," said Rodger Schlickeisen, President of Defenders of Wildlife.

He notes that, "Congressional leaders are using greener rhetoric but they still don't get the basic point that the American people want them to put their money where their mouths are." The Appropriations Committee allocation for the Interior Department and related agencies takes a greater cut over the past two years (11.34 percent) than any other appropriations allocation except Foreign Operations. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt labeled it "The worst environmental disaster since their last budget." The Clinton Administration threatened a veto on the bill when it emerged from full committee due to several controversial provisions in the bill and overall funding levels.

In relation to budgetary arguments, Schlickeisen commented, "These appropriations should represent a wise investment in the magnificent natural heritage we leave to future generations. If the bill comes out of conference with the Senate looking like this, that heritage will be squandered and the bill definitely will be veto bait."

Many of the votes were close, but in a major victory for conservationists, one of the most controversial provisions was defeated on the floor yesterday by an overwhelming margin. Led by Rep. Norm Dicks (D-WA), the House voted 257 to 164 against a damaging provision added to the bill last week in full committee by Rep. Frank Riggs (R-CA). A record 81 Republicans voted with Dicks. The defeated Riggs rider would have prevented the Fish and Wildlife Service from designating or implementing critical habitat on most private land in California for the marbled murrelet, a small seabird listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. (See Defenders June 19 press release.)

While the Riggs rider was removed, another rider jeopardizing endangered species remains in the bill. Initially included in the FY96 Interior appropriations bill by Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-AZ), this rider further imperils the endangered Mount Graham red squirrel Ä one of the most endangered creatures in the U.S. Ä and its fragile ancient boreal forest ecosystem that is sacred to the Apache people. It exempts a controversial telescope project in Arizona from conservation and cultural protection laws.

During consideration of logging issues on the floor, last night the House initially took a step in the right direction by approving 211 to 210 an amendment by Representatives Joe Kennedy (D-MA), John Porter (R-IL) and others saving $48 million by eliminating funding for 550 miles of new timber roads. But another vote was demanded today, resulting in a 211 to 211 tie that meant the Kennedy amendment was not approved.

In addition, an amendment by Representatives Elizabeth Furse (D-OR), Porter, Sidney Yates (D-IL), and Connie Morella (R-MD) to repeal the notorious clearcut rider, which became law in the FY '95 rescissions bill, was defeated by two votes. The amendment would have stopped funding for implementing the salvage logging rider, which mandated an accelerated salvage logging program with exemption from all environmental laws.

DRASTIC FUNDING CUTS

According to Defenders of Wildlife, the bill passed today severely underfunds vital conservation programs, including those for imperiled species and land acquisition. The funding level for Fish and Wildlife Service's endangered species programs was 20 percent less than the President's FY97 request. Without adequate funding, the FWS cannot properly protect and recover the more than 900 species already protected under the Act, provide support to landowners and state and local governments, nor arrest the decline of hundreds more species before protection under the Act is necessary.

Another critically important program, land acquisition for our parks, wildlife refuges and national forests, was cut by almost 40 percent from FY96 levels and more than 65 percent from FY95 levels. The Land and Water Conservation Fund was initially authorized at $900 million annually using revenues from offshore oil and gas leases which total more than $2 billion annually as a way of giving something back in return for exploitation of our non-renewable resources. An amendment by Representative Sam Farr (D-CA) to restore funding for the program to the FY95 level of $235 million by cutting the Department of Energy's Fossil Fuel Research & Development Program failed by a vote of 183-235.

While cutting funding for programs that protect wildlife and support acquisition of key habitat areas, the bill continues to increase funds for below cost timber sales and forest health management "salvage logging," the removal of dead, dying, and diseased trees. Contrary to claims of congressional supporters of salvage logging, a recent letter from more than 100 scientists states that dead and dying trees are critical to maintain forest biodiversity, protect water quality, and control pests and that salvage logging is actually a threat to forest health not a cure.

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Contact(s):

Joan Moody, 202-682-9400 x220 (Media)
Mary Beth Beetham, 202-682-9400 x231 (Approps.)